As the first of the four Nordic nations to receive its new multi-role helicopters, Denmark is justifiably proud of its EH101 fleet. So much so, in fact, that its air force invited a trio of British journalists to ride aboard as its newest example was delivered last month. Too good an offer to refuse at the best of times, but with Flight International about to publish a package of Nordic special features, I jumped at the chance to travel with M-512.
There would, however, be a couple of unusual conditions for the guests to come to terms with: we would have to wear rubber, and might well have to cross our legs for a bit
The EH101 is no ordinary helicopter, and ours was to be a long journey, taking us from AgustaWestland's Yeovil manufacturing site in Somerset directly to the home of the Royal Danish Air Force's (RDAF) 722 Sqn: Karup airbase. In total, the engines would be running for 4h 20min, and the flight would be interrupted only by a brief leg stretch - but no prospect of a comfort break - on the deck of a North Sea oil rig.
I guess it highlights my limited experience in flying helicopters over large expanses of water, but my first time wearing an immersion suit was to be an entertaining one. We climbed into our strange attire to strangled cries of "Bring out the Gimp" (a reference to an undesirable character in Quentin Tarantino's 'Pulp Fiction'), while deep down we were all wondering the same thing: where's the toilet on an EH101? You guessed it; there isn't one.
The immersion suit certainly isn't one of the most attractive items a person could choose to wear, but it's probably a lot better than chinos and a smart shirt if you have to ditch in the North Sea. And trust me, the cable you can see in the photo isn't heading anywhere suspicious
The RDAF is within three months of flying its first search and rescue (SAR) missions with the EH101 Joint Supporter from Karup, with eight of the type to progressively replace the service's 40-year-old Sikorsky S-61s. But we were bringing home Denmark's fourth of six tactical troop transport (TTT) examples, which will provide the Danish armed forces with a new battlefield capability from early next decade.
Up front for our flight was an unusual combination. In the left seat was Bak, a former Danish army Hughes 500 pilot and fixed-wing instructor, with SAR instructor Jøl - a former Saab Draken and Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter pilot - alongside him. Also aboard were a further three Danish personnel.
We took off from Yeovil at 09:31 on 17 November, with our route appropriately taking us over the nearby Royal Naval Air Station at Yeovilton and then past Royal Air Force bases Lyneham, Fairford and Brize Norton. We then passed to the north of London, came close to RAF Lakenheath and then headed out over the coast near Lowestoft at 10:45. While on the way at 5,000ft (1,520m), we also got the chance to try out some of the Joint Supporter's gleaming mission equipment, and I was able to put a quick call into the office using the aircraft's Iridium satellite phone; part of a diverse communications suite which will meet the demands of both SAR and battlefield transport duties.
Our speed was initially restricted to 120kt (222kt) due to our heavy take-off weight of 15,200kg (33,500lb); just 400kg short of the type's maximum, but this later rose to around 150kt after some of our 3,900kg fuel load began to burn off. In fact, with a strong tail wind aiding our progress, over the open water we actually achieved an indicated air speed of 197kt, frustratingly close to equaling the 200kt only achieved once before by the RDAF's EH101s.
I've never experienced this before, but our crew complained during the flight that we weren't burning enough fuel. Our initial plan - key to being able to make it directly to Karup without refuelling on the way - was to switch off one of our three engines to cut fuel consumption during the cruise. But because of our high speed we were unable to do this until after we made a brief stop on the Halfdan Alpha rig in the Danish sector of the North Sea. This was another first for me, and I was subsequently assured that the "moderate" wind speed of 26mph on the helideck - with gusts attempting to knock you off your feet - was making it quite a pleasant day out there. Not somewhere I'd want to holiday though, thanks all the same!
After a brief period of flight on two engines, we went low level along the stunning west coast of the Jutland peninsula at 200ft, before heading inland to demonstrate the capabilities of the TTT's laser obstacle warning system. It's a bad thing to ask a helicopter pilot to show off this sort of system, and we were soon heading straight at a 1,200ft-tall TV mast, with cautions and warnings blaring out as I sank that little bit lower in the cockpit jump seat. At least the kit works though! Finally, we used the aircraft's autopilot to pick up the ILS signal from Karup and automatically descended down the glide path, settling 70ft above the runway centre line, slightly nose up and at a forward speed of 60kt before Bak took control. That's a capability I'd already witnessed on a Royal Navy EH101 Merlin HM1 flight into RNAS Culdrose earlier this year, and is a reassuring club to have in the bag.
As with my two previous flights in an EH101, the flight was enjoyable and didn't feel like a long time to be on a helicopter, which bodes well for crews on future SAR missions. It did take about five hours for the immersion suit pinch marks on my wrists to fade away after we reached Karup, but thankfully as I passed on the offers of coffee until 30min from landing that was the only drama I experienced in wearing it!
In some later e-mail correspondence, one of our RDAF hosts noted: "Thank you for flying Royal Danish Airlines - hope to see you onboard again another time". I'll be waiting for my next invitation too; maybe a SAR trip next time wearing a nice orange suit?